Derek Lowe wonders whether the secret recipe for scientific breakthroughs can be taught – and how much indigestion that recipe would cause in the boardroom

Here’s a simple enough statement which can start arguments that aren’t simple at all: some people are better at discovering things than other people are. Does that sound true to you, or not?

The nihilist case is that it’s just wrong, that discoveries are more or less randomly distributed. The random element can’t be denied – nobody who’s done drug discovery work would deny it, anyway – but in the end, I can’t go along with the theory that it’s all down to sheer luck of the draw. There are enough researchers who’ve been in on many more than their random share of discoveries.

And really, why shouldn’t there be such people? If intelligence and hard work are necessary to make most discoveries, it’s demonstrated to us every day that those qualities are not evenly distributed. A disproportionate number of breakthroughs should go to the people who are thinking hard, thinking a lot, and willing to act on the basis of their thoughts.

But there’s another level to this question. Do we still find disparities after we restrict the field to the competent and the motivated? The historical record would seem to say that we do, with a suspicious number of people involved in more than one notable piece of work. Imagine if we could figure out how this happens – it could be the key ingredient in a recipe for scientific breakthroughs.

Over samples of large populations and many years, I think that we have to assume (against the urgings of sports coaches and motivational speakers everywhere) that these differences are not completely due to extra determination and desire. While I think that brains and effort are necessary, I don’t believe that they’re sufficient.

The interesting conclusion is that success in scientific discovery is partly a result of particular behaviours. The corollary is that such behaviours could potentially be learned, if only we knew what to teach.

I know of at least one attempt to do just that – an odd book by Robert Root-Bernstein called Discovering, which has been in and out of print over the years. There’s a particularly interesting chapter near the end that attempts to distil out some rules for scientific behaviour by examining the careers of some of the most inventive researchers. They make for fascinating (but oddly uncomfortable) reading.

Most of the rules are exhortations to indulge in risk-taking behaviours, to attack problems that you don’t have a good idea of how to solve, in fields that no one understands very well. They urge you to be prepared to charge ahead in the face of disappointing results, ignoring (for a while, at least) data that might be misleading you, but at the same time to be prepared to rip up your most cherished hypotheses. It’s exhilarating stuff, but it all makes you realise that many people aren’t psychologically resilient enough to work this way. Reading about people who have scaled the heights can be inspiring, but it can also make you wonder if you could survive up there yourself.

Back in the world of pharmaceutical research, there’s another problem. Running drug discovery by these principles would prompt an outbreak of upper management coronaries at many companies. A bean-counting approach to drug research doesn’t always blend well with the ’use the force, Luke’ style of some of the great discoverers. And unfortunately, great breakthroughs do not happen according to schedule.

But perhaps a little more risk-taking would do everyone in the big offices some good. Companies are always emitting vapour about how their people are their most important asset, and how they value innovation and lateral thinking above everything else.

It would be instructive, not to mention entertaining, to see those slogans taken literally once in a while. How long, I wonder, would some of the people profiled in Discovering actually last in my industry? 

Derek Lowe is an experienced medicinal chemist in the pharmaceutical industry, working on preclinical drug discovery.